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Monday, January 23, 2012

Blood at Courtland Plantation

The War of 1812 was not kind to Courtland Smith.  He arrived in Mississippi in 1799, and later joined the Mississippi Dragoons to fight the British.  He fought with Colonel Hines in the Battle of Pensacola, where he received a saber cut on his cheek that laid open the entire left side of his face from his eyebrow to his chin.  He was only 20 years old.

He was haunted by his disfigurement, and so chose to live in the wilderness, preferring the nonjudgmental eyes of the woodland creatures to the townspeople who might stare with pity.

With his government grants secured, he could afford to build a house.  But much to the distress of his family, he built on an Indian mound.  Most of the Indians were scattered and the view the mound afforded was lovely.  What could go wrong?

The house was completed in 1816. It was a simple structure consisting of four rooms, built of solid timbers fitted together with thumb grooves and pegs.  He did not enjoy it long.  On February 13, 1817, he was found dead in his bed with the point of an arrow embedded in his heart.

It would not be the last time Indians sought revenge for their desecration.

"Only negroes were on the plantation when his body was discovered.  They became frightened and let their superstitious fears possess them to such an extent that they practically reverted to the savage condition that had been theirs so recently in Africa.

Esther, Courtland's mother, who lived in the Second Creek neighborhood on Burleigh Plantation, was overcome with grief.  But she insisted that her son's death was God's will, preordained from the beginning of time.  She paid little attention to the negroes and let them run wild.  Later, when she became more calm, she moved the slaves to Burleigh and eventually got them quieted down." ~ The Old House by Catharine Van Court, 1950.

Smith's tomb is in the Philanda Smith burial ground on Retirement Plantation near Second Creek in Adams County.

A few weeks ago I learned that my favorite local bookstore was closing its brick-and-mortar business to go exclusively online.  Cover to Cover was a delightful resource for rare, signed and first-edition copies of books pertaining to Mississippi and Natchez, and I enjoyed many hours there browsing the old books.  Thus forewarned I ran down to the corner and dropped a bundle on books I knew would soon be gone if I didn't act straightaway.

I've just finished one of those books -- The Old House -- by Catharine Van Court, who was born on Courtland Plantation in Adams County, Mississippi in 1873.   I grew up here in Adams County, but had never heard of Courtland Plantation, which was located near Sandy Creek on Kingston Road, a few miles down the road from where I live.  I discovered a book that is not only beautifully written, but one that shed light on a history I was unaware of and also of another family tie.

I had heard the name "Van Court" before in reference to my family, and had driven by a house on Washington Street called The Van Court Townhouse, and wondered if it was one and the same.  As it turns out, it was.  I discovered a reference on Mississippi authors that Ms. Van Court married A.E. Pritchartt in 1892.  Alexander was my great grandfather's brother.

Courtland wrote The Old House in 1950, capturing in it the life on a plantation not long after the Civil War, and the concerns and hardships of people at a time when disease could wipe out generations without warning.  She wrote about the people who populated her small world, remembering with fondness and sadness the faces of those people -- both black and white.

For many years [after Courtland Smith's murder] the cabin stood empty.  Then Mrs. Adaline Baker, my grandmother, who had inherited it from Courtland, her brother, decided to enlarge the house, name the place for him and live there. ~ The Old House

Life at Courtland Plantation was remote and sometimes hard.  Van Court tells of being born on the plantation rather than at the townhouse because of the creek, which could flood without warning.

There was no bridge over the creek.  A few hours after a rain up in the hills, Sandy Creek would rise.  Often, the first knowledge of the coming flood would be a faint murmur.  This would grow louder, rapidly.  Then suddenly from around the bend there would come a volume of water that, as it bore down, looked like an immense wall.  When it gained lower land, it would spread out.  In a short time, from the Courtland side, which was high, it appeared to be a wide sea.

The Natchez

Eugène Delacroix  (French, Charenton-Saint-Morice 1798–1863 Paris)

The water, as it came from the hills, would roar so loudly it could be heard for several miles. ~ The Old House

Ms. Van Court's brother, Sydney, was also killed by an Indian named Red Eagle.  One night news came to the plantation that the Homochitto River was rising. Sydney spent the entire night trying to save the horses that were in the pasture.

"We lost two of our best mares," [Sydney] said.

Father had been about to help himself from a plate of scrambled eggs.  But he waved the dish away.  Then he pushed his chair back:  "That's bad, Son," he said, "but don't take it so to heart.  Plantation life is like that."

"When I got there, I found Red Eagle roaming about," Sidney said. 

"What was he doing in our pasture?"  Father showed his surprise.

"If he'd given us a little help when I asked it, we wouldn't have lost the mares.  But he just stood staring as we worked."

"What did you say to him?" Father asked.

"When we were through, I told him never to show his face on Courtland again." ~ The Old House

Not long after, Sydney was taken ill with Typhoid fever.  Times were hard and the family was forced to sell the townhouse.  Leaving Sydney in the care of a servant, Catharine and her father went to Natchez where her mother had been packing up to move out to Courtland permanently.  On the way back home, they happened onto crowd.

The figure of an Indian lay stretched upon the ground.  The man's face was covered with blood...his whole body was bloody.  Eight or ten men were milling about but no one appeared to be giving him any assistance.  Father jumped out and went over to see what had happened.

Isaac, who had come over to the coach, said:

"It's Red Eagle, Miss Addie.  He done stole a man's horse.  Fred, what lives on Mr. Vaughan's place, says Red went into his pasture, just 'fore daybreak, and got it."

"Is he dead," I asked.

"I reckon so, Miss Katie," Isaac said.

"Go on and tell me about it," Mother urged.

"Well," Isaac said, "soon as ever Fred missed his horse, he and a gang set out to find it.  They spied Red comin' down the road from Courtland on the horse's back.  Soon as ever he crossed the creek they stopped him.  Then they pulled him off the horse.  About that time, Fred brought the handle of his pistol crashin' down on Red's skull.  I 'low how he done killed him...but 'taint much loss, nohow." ~ The Old House

They continued their journey back to Courtland.

Our coach led the van and as we rolled through the big, white gate that opened into Courtland where we saw Lizzie, who had remained there to care for Sidney, racing down the driveway.  Her hair was standing out about her face...her eyes were wild.

The coach had hardly stopped when we were out and up the steps and into the house.  I was the first one to reach my brother's room.  He lay on his back  in the middle of a great four-poster.  Rightaway, I knew he was dead.  Blood was everywhere except on his face.  Evidently, Lizzie had washed that carefully before she came to meet us.  His eyes were closed and his features were not distorted.  When I pulled the sheet back a bit, I saw that there was a gaping wound in his was just above the heart.  Liz stood by my side.

Later that evening, Father told us that she had found my brother when she had come into the house to give him his breakfast.  Evidently he had been stabbed while he was asleep.  There were bloody handprints on the door.  But no weapon was found and there was no sign of a struggle.  He must have been killed instantly.

As I lay awake the night before the funeral I repeated softly, though my heart was bitter, a war song of the Natchez race:

"Son of the Chiefs of the Beard,
thou shalt know this mystery.
Praise be the Chiefs of the Beard
who know how to avenge their ancestral injury!"

Great bitterness had been shown our family by the few Indians left in Adams County.  But it was unlikely that this could have had any connection with Sidney's death for the Red men were entirely unorganized.  I agreed with my father that Red Eagle was the murderer.  I thought it more than likely that the Indian had resented the fact that my brother had told him to leave the plantation and never to set foot upon it again.

In the epilogue, Van Court writes:

Throughout the years, fire and wind took a toll of the house at Courtland.  But even after the plantation was sold, whenever I have been in that part of the country, I have gone and stood beneath the trees I love so well.  Always, before I would leave, I would climb the hill to the house.  Then I would see it through a would still appear beautiful to me.

But a few years ago I read in The Natchez Democrat that the house had been completely demolished by fire.  A great loneliness swept over me as I read.  Suddenly I was conscious that I was smiling; after all, I thought, White Apple, the Great Sun of the Natchez Nation, may yet have a marker on his burial mound for Courtland plantation is now a part of the Homochitto National Forest.

~ The Old House by Catharine Van Court

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